AZUSA, Calif. -- Defending NAIA men’s soccer champion Azusa Pacific took a page out of 2006 champion Graceland’s book, sitting back on defense for the opening half before scoring a pair of late goals for a 2-0 victory Saturday afternoon at the Cougar Classic.
“It’s going to look a little bit different than it did the last couple years for us,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf, whose 2007 title-winning squad featured an offense that revolved around 2008 Major League Soccer fourth-round draft choice Steven Lenhart.
“For everybody involved in the program, even the fans and supporters we have, it’s going to look a lot different. If people are expecting a big blonde kid to show up, it’s just not going to happen. It will come over time but we all need to show some patience.”
Sophomore forward Alex Earl provided the game-winner at the 81-minute mark, and freshman forward Nathan Nienhuis buried an insurance goal with just over 2 minutes remaining to seal the 2-goal victory.
Graceland’s 2006 title came at Azusa Pacific’s expense, a defensive thriller decided in a 10-round penalty kick shootout after the teams played to a scoreless draw through 110 minutes of regulation and overtime.
“Unfortunately, nothing will undo what happened (that year),” said Wolf. “They did win a national championship that year – we didn’t, and that was a hard thing to take. I don’t think this game makes up for it, but like I told the team after the game, this game today was a really important game for a lot of people around our program. There are so many bad feelings about that game. I didn’t want to use it as motivation in the locker room but it’s hard not to.”
This time, it was the Cougars who waited patiently for opportunities to develop at the offensive end, generating just a pair of first-half shots to Graceland’s 6. The second half, however, was a completely different story. The first 10 minutes of the second half produced quality scoring chances for both sides.
The Cougars fired off 5 shots in the first 8 minutes after halftime, including a strike from Earl that bounced off the top of the crossbar and a pair of point-blank chances from junior forward Mike Wilson. The first was saved by Graceland goalkeeper Carlos Ortiz, and the second sailed high over the net. Graceland took 3 shots within the first 9 minutes, all of which missed wide of the goal.
“I thought the play of the strikers was improved over yesterday,” said Wolf. “I thought Alex (Earl) and Mike (Wilson) got a little bit bullied yesterday and were not playing at the right level, but today they showed they are going to be good players in this program. They’re going to do well, it’s just going to take some time.”
After missing its first 10 shots of the game, Azusa Pacific finally broke through for scores on 2 of its final 3 shots. In the 81st minute, sophomore midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi beat his defender to the touch line outside the box on the left side, and his cross to the front of the net was buried by Earl from 8 yards out with exactly 9 minutes to play in regulation. Seven minutes later, Banihashemi found an opening at nearly the exact same spot as his 81st-minute assist. His cross was tipped by the goalkeeper, right to the feet of Nienhuis, who put the chance away from 5 yards out.
“We did really well getting the ball out wide and just flipping balls in,” said Banihashemi, whose national championship experience included his second career goal in last season’s 2-0 win over Concordia in the NAIA title game. “Coming in last year, I heard stories about (the 2006 championship) and how we lost in the finals in penalty kicks. Just knowing the history of this rivalry, it was good to be able to win this one for the alumni, our more experienced players and the coaches.”
Senior goalkeeper James Crawford, who was the man in goal for the infamous 7-6 shootout defeat in the 2006 championship game, was at the top of his game with the Cougars’ hopes of redemption on the line Saturday afternoon. Crawford made 4 saves, all in the first half, and his assertive play throughout the contest helped stabilize the Azusa Pacific defense.
“In the first half, we were just finding our way,” said Crawford. “With this being one of our first games of the season, we just wanted to get going, so the first half was a little back and forth. In the second half, we were able to keep the ball more and spread them out, and we got into a groove. We kicked back all the nerves and settled in, and that was probably the real difference.”
Azusa Pacific takes its 1-0-1 record into next week’s Far West Classic, held at the Nike World Campus in Beaverton, Ore. The Cougars will take on another pair of NAIA Top 25 programs, meeting up with No. 24-ranked Concordia (Ore.) on Friday, Sept. 5, followed by a Saturday, Sept. 6 matchup with No. 5-ranked Simon Fraser (B.C.). During its 2007 NAIA championship run, Azusa Pacific shut out Simon Fraser in the national semifinals, 1-0, to clinch its berth in the title game.